Decision of the European Ombudsman closing his inquiry into complaint 1283/2012/AN against the European Parliament
Decision - Case 1283/2012/AN - Opened on Monday | 16 July 2012 - Decision on Monday | 15 July 2013
The background to the complaint
1. The complainant, Ms A, is a former trainee in one of Parliament's Representation offices in a Member State of the EU.
2. In May 2011, Ms A contacted by e-mail the Secretariat of the European Parliament's Advisory Committee on Harassment and its Prevention at the Workplace (the 'Harassment Committee') and stated that she needed "urgent advice" concerning a matter falling under the Committee's remit.
3. On the same day, one of the members of the Harassment Committee contacted Ms A by e-mail in order to ascertain the nature of the matter. Ms A immediately explained that she felt that she was the victim of sexual harassment by her traineeship supervisor and briefly summarised the facts. She did not receive any reply.
4. In July 2011, Ms A wrote to another member of the Harassment Committee. She mentioned that she had not received any feedback to her correspondence and requested advice as to the right person to turn to with her problem. An exchange of e-mails followed between Ms A and the Committee Member in question.
5. In September 2011, Ms A informed the same Committee Member that, following some medical issues she had faced and which were now resolved, she wished to resume contact with the Committee as regards her case. After a series of e-mail exchanges, at the end of September 2011, Ms A sent a formal complaint to the Harassment Committee by registered post. She informed the Committee accordingly by e-mail and added that she had been trying to submit a complaint since May 2011, but her requests in this regard had been ignored on each occasion.
6. On the same day, the Chairman of the Harassment Committee informed Ms A that he would contact her to explain how the Committee worked, which he did the following day by telephone.
7. Some two weeks later, the Chairman of the Harassment Committee requested a telephone conversation with Ms A. The conversation took place in the following days, when Ms A also forwarded to the Committee the e-mail she had sent to one of its members in May 2011.
8. In November 2011, Ms A requested information about her case. The Harassment Committee replied almost three weeks later, asking for a telephone conversation with Ms A the following day, which she accepted. However, the conversation did not take place the following day. A few days later, the Harassment Committee requested Ms A to confirm whether she could be reached at a certain phone number or if she could provide another one. Ms A confirmed that the phone number in the Committee's file was correct. The conversation, however, did not take place.
9. Two weeks later, Ms A complained to the Chairman of the Harassment Committee that the latter still had not taken any concrete steps as regards her case. The Chairman of the Committee replied to Ms A the next day, stating that he had tried to contact her by telephone on repeated occasions, but he did not succeed and was unable to leave a message. The Chairman stated that he would try again and also provided Ms A with his phone number in case she wished to contact him.
10. The Chairman contacted Ms A by telephone the next day and informed her of the Committee's Members' intention to travel to Ms A's place of residence in January 2012 in order to meet her. Subsequently, Ms A once again forwarded to the Committee the e-mail she had sent in May 2011.
11. In late February and early March 2012, Ms A reminded the Committee of its intention to organise a meeting with her, which had not materialised. Shortly after, the Committee proposed to meet Ms A on 30 March 2012, which she accepted.
12. On 27 March 2012, Ms A asked the Committee whether the meeting would indeed take place, as she had not received any further news in that regard. The Committee replied the following day, stating that the meeting needed to be postponed because it would not have the necessary quorum. The Committee would contact Ms A to agree upon a new date.
13. The Committee did not get back to Ms A until 19 June 2012, when she turned to the European Ombudsman.
The subject matter of the inquiry
14. The Ombudsman's inquiry concerned the following allegation and claim.
The European Parliament's Committee on Harassment has failed to investigate the facts reported by Ms A within a reasonable time.
The European Parliament's Committee on Harassment should complete its investigation and inform Ms A of the outcome as soon as possible.
15. Initially, the Ombudsman also included in his inquiry (i) an allegation that Parliament has not provided Ms A with any alternative in order to complete the traineeship she had to interrupt because of the alleged harassment, and (ii) a claim that Parliament should allow Ms A to complete her traineeship or, if it is established that she was subjected to harassment, it should compensate her.
16. However, in its opinion, Parliament highlighted that the Harassment Committee was still considering Ms A's case. Therefore, her second allegation and second claim were inadmissible, since Parliament could not take a stance on them before the Committee had made its recommendations to the Secretary-General as regards the outcome of the case.
17. The Ombudsman considers that Parliament's position is grounded. Indeed, irrespective of the procedural question as to whether the duration of the procedure before the Harassment Committee was reasonable, which is something that the Ombudsman will assess below, the substantive outcome of Ms A's case cannot be prejudged. Therefore, the Ombudsman will not take a stance on these issues, and his decision will refer only to those mentioned in paragraph 14.
18. On 16 July 2012, the Ombudsman requested Ms A to submit copies of her exchanges of correspondence with the Harassment Committee, which she did on 30 August 2012.
19. On 27 September 2012, the Ombudsman forwarded the complaint and supporting documents to the President of the European Parliament, with an invitation to submit an opinion on the complaint.
20. The European Parliament submitted its opinion on 24 January 2013. The Ombudsman forwarded it to Ms A for possible observations, which she sent on 27 February 2013. She completed her observations on 17 June 2013 by telephone.
The Ombudsman's analysis and conclusions
A. Allegation concerning the failure to investigate the harassment case within a reasonable time
Arguments presented to the Ombudsman
21. In her complaint, Ms A highlighted that she submitted her case to the Harassment Committee in May 2011, and that, as of 19 June 2012, the latter had not taken any steps in its regard. Even the meeting that was supposed to take place in early 2012 had been cancelled and never rescheduled. Ms A considered that the Committee had ignored her and delayed the case despite the fact that she had submitted all the necessary elements.
22. In its opinion, the European Parliament took the view that the Committee's handling of Ms A's case should be divided into two stages.
23. As regards the first stage, prior to the opening of the Ombudsman's inquiry, Parliament acknowledged that delays had indeed occurred. In particular, as regards the fact that the Committee had not yet met Ms A, Parliament explained that this was due to practical problems in organising such a meeting, "in the sense that the vast majority" of the Committee's cases are dealt with at the European Parliament's three work places. Nevertheless, Parliament considered it "regrettable that the Harassment Committee did not take any appropriate and firm action with a view to organising a meeting" with Ms A. It also expressed its regret that Ms A's case "was not given the full attention it deserved".
24. Parliament further mentioned that on 1 October 2012, immediately after the opening of the Ombudsman's inquiry, the newly appointed Chairman of the Harassment Committee contacted Ms A and apologised for any errors which might have taken place in the handling of her case. On 11 October, the Committee met Ms A in her city of residence, and she informed the members that she was in possession of documents supporting her case. The following day, the Committee requested Ms A to provide such documentation, which she eventually did on 17 November 2012. Subsequently, the Committee considered that a new meeting with Ms A was necessary. At the time Parliament sent its opinion, the Committee was attempting to organise the meeting.
25. Parliament concluded that, as soon as it was informed of the Ombudsman's inquiry into the present case, it did everything in its power to remedy any error committed in the course of the procedure.
26. In her observations, Ms A considered that the contacts she had with the Harassment Committee before submitting a complaint to the Ombudsman were insufficient and unsatisfactory. More specifically, she stressed her dissatisfaction with the fact that some of the e-mails she had sent to the official address of the Committee members were returned as undelivered, and the fact that the Committee did not do its best to contact her by telephone, despite some technical problems with the telephone line. In particular, Ms A deplored the fact that, prior to the Ombudsman's inquiry, the Committee did not, in fact, take any sort of action and was even incapable of organising at least one meeting with her.
27. In sum, Ms A took the view that the actions "undertaken so far by the Committee, and thus, Parliament, have been insufficient and discouraging and have taken an excessively long amount of time". She stated that she felt defenceless and disappointed at the low level of empathy and sensitivity that the Committee had shown in dealing with her case. However, Ms A emphasised that her negative impression did not concern the ongoing work of the Committee at the time of writing the observations.
The Ombudsman's assessment
28. Article 12a of the Staff Regulations requires officials of the European Union to refrain from any form of psychological or sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is defined, in paragraph 4 of the same Article, as "conduct relating to sex which is unwanted by the person to whom it is directed and which has the purpose or effect of offending that person or creating an intimidating, hostile, offensive or disturbing environment." This provision lies at the basis of the European Parliament's Internal Rules for the Harassment Committee (the 'IRHC'), adopted on 21 February 2006 and which highlight, in their preamble, Parliament's willingness to "create a working atmosphere which respects the dignity of the individual and promotes the professional and personal fulfilment of its staff".
29. The underlying principle of Article 12a of the Staff Regulations and of Parliament's subsequent IRHC is the protection of every person's right to dignity in his or her working environment, which is only one facet of the fundamental right to dignity enshrined in Article 1 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Moreover, paragraph 4 of Article 12a of the Staff Regulations explicitly states that sexual harassment shall be treated as discrimination based on gender, which is also prohibited in light of Article 21 of the Charter.
30. The Ombudsman notes that both the Staff Regulations and the IRHC refer, and logically so, to "staff" of the EU institutions. He nevertheless takes the view that these same rules apply to cases in which the alleged victim of harassment is a trainee, whose relationship with the institutions is clearly of a professional nature analogous to employment. The dignity of a trainee integrated, albeit for a short period of time, in the institutions' services and contributing to their daily work, should by no means be less deserving of protection than that of a normal employee. On the contrary, the specific status of trainees, who hold more precarious and vulnerable positions than employees do, requires particular attention to be paid to situations in which their vulnerability could be abused in the framework of their working environment. In light of Parliament's opinion, the Ombudsman understands that it shares this view.
31. Article 24, paragraph 1 of the Staff Regulations stipulates that "...the Union shall assist any official, in particular in proceedings against any person perpetrating threats, insulting or defamatory acts or utterances ... to which he ... is subjected by reason of his position or duties." This duty is the natural counterpart to the right enshrined, for the purposes of the present decision, in Article 12a of the Staff Regulations.
32. In implementing the provisions of the Staff Regulations concerning harassment, the IRHC stipulate that the Harassment Committee shall "...listen sympathetically to any person who considers that he/she is the victim of harassment and shall give him/her the necessary time and attention" (emphasis added). As regards the procedure, the IRHC provide that the Committee shall at least hear the person reporting an alleged case of harassment, and that this should be done within ten working days of his/her request. The Committee ultimately forwards a confidential report to the Secretary-General of the European Parliament containing proposals on the action to be taken.
33. The Ombudsman notes with deep regret, first, that the 10-day deadline for hearing Ms A has clearly not been met in the present case. He takes the view that practical difficulties and distances longer than the usual ones cannot in any way justify that the first meeting with Ms A, who first turned to the Committee in May 2011, took place only in October 2012. Moreover, it is totally unacceptable for such an important meeting, once scheduled, to be cancelled only three days before and for the complainant to be informed of this only in reply to her own inquiries.
34. In this regard, the Ombudsman strongly disagrees with the position Parliament put forward in its opinion that, in fact, the Committee did not formally schedule the meeting, but only envisaged that it would take place on 30 March 2012. The Committee's e-mail of early March 2012 to the complainant clearly states that the Committee was about to decide "who will be going to... meet" Ms A (emphasis added), not whether such a meeting would take place. It is again regrettable that, instead of acknowledging the inappropriate organisation of the meeting, Parliament chose to excuse the Harassment Committee using an artificial argument which is, moreover, not supported by evidence. In any event, even if the meeting had not formally been scheduled, the Committee had the obligation to inform the complainant earlier that there was no quorum and that the allegedly "envisaged" meeting would not take place at all.
35. Second, the Ombudsman notes that the Committee not only failed to meet Ms A within a reasonable time-limit in the given circumstances, but it also failed, prior to the opening of the Ombudsman's inquiry, to listen sympathetically to her, as the IRHC require, either by phone or e-mail, and thereby engage in a genuine, consistent and continued dialogue with her as regards the allegations she had put forward.
36. In its opinion, Parliament appears to consider that the difficulties preventing it from having regular contacts with the complainant were due, to some extent, to the fact that she was not easily reachable by telephone. Ms A, on her side, argues that Parliament could have persisted with its efforts to call her, or called at different hours, and, in any case, it should have left a message on her voicemail. The Ombudsman does not consider it useful, for the outcome of his inquiry, to enter into this debate. He will limit himself to noting that the fact that telephone contact with the complainant may have been difficult could in no way have prevented a diligent Harassment Committee truly committed to investigating the case from contacting Ms A by any other means, in particular by e-mail, as it did on some occasions. To argue that the procedure was delayed by so many months by the fact that Ms A was not easily reachable by telephone amounts to depriving her, in fact, of the special protection that the IRHC grants to the vulnerable party in the proceedings. In addition, blaming Ms A for the Committee's own lack of diligence is utterly unfair.
37. In any event, the need to find an effective way to communicate with Ms A was all the more important, considering that Ms A had informed the members of the Committee from an early stage of the procedure that she had been the victim of an accident and was going through a period of poor health, which required her hospitalisation on several occasions. This reason alone should have alerted the Committee to the fact that Ms A might not be readily available on the phone and that other means of communication could be necessary in order to ensure that the Committee's messages actually reached her. Nevertheless, from the exchange of e-mails between Ms A and the Committee from May 2011 until March 2012, the Ombudsman draws the impression that it was generally Ms A who took the initiative to re-contact the Committee time and time again, receiving practically no substantive feedback at all. Yet, it was not Ms A's, but the Committee's obligation to investigate the facts and push the procedure forward by all possible means.
38. In light of the foregoing, the Ombudsman takes the view that the Committee's behaviour before the opening of his inquiry into the present complaint fell far short of the standards expected of a body entrusted with such a delicate mission as the investigation of alleged sexual harassment. Regrettably, the Committee did not "intervene with all the necessary vigour and [did not] respond with the rapidity and solicitude required by the circumstances of the case with a view to ascertaining the facts and, consequently, taking the appropriate action in full knowledge of the facts". The Ombudsman cannot emphasise enough the vital importance, for a person feeling that he or she has been the victim of harassment, of finding an interlocutor that is reliable, responsive and able to reassure him or her that everything is being done to ascertain the facts. The absence of such an interlocutor or its inefficiency can only add to the frustration and helplessness of the person in question, while at the same time damaging the credibility of the institution concerned.
39. The Ombudsman thus considers that Harassment Committee's inertia up to the Ombudsman's opening of his inquiry constituted a clear instance of maladministration.
40. Pursuant to Article 3(5) of the European Ombudsman's Statute, the main aim of his inquiries is to reach a friendly solution for the disputes which are submitted to him. However, the Ombudsman notes that, since the opening of the his inquiry into the present case, the Committee: (a) has acknowledged its errors and, through the voice of its newly appointed Chair, has apologised to Ms A for the shortcomings (in its opinion, Parliament has also expressed its regret for the inadequate treatment Ms A received); (b) has given a new impulse to Ms A's case by contacting her, organising internal meetings and also holding, to date, two meetings with Ms A; and (c) has thus started effectively to engage with Ms A and is currently in the process of assessing the case. Consequently, the Ombudsman considers that the alleged shortcomings have been remedied in the meantime and a friendly solution proposal would not be useful.
41. Wishing to build on trust rather than blame, the Ombudsman decides to close the case with further, rather than critical, remarks.
On the basis of his inquiry into this complaint, the Ombudsman closes it with the following conclusion and further remarks:
The Ombudsman does not consider it appropriate to carry out further inquiries into the present complaint.
The Ombudsman trusts that the Committee will keep acting with diligence and sensitivity in its contacts with Ms A and will reach a reasoned conclusion concerning her allegations within a time which will indeed be reasonable. The Ombudsman expects to be informed of the final outcome of the case.
More generally, the Ombudsman trusts that the Harassment Committee has drawn the appropriate lessons from the present case as regards the way in which it should deal with complaints concerning harassment and will apply these lessons in its future practice.
The complainant and the European Parliament will be informed of this decision.
P. Nikiforos Diamandouros
Done in Strasbourg on 15 July 2013
 In its opinion, the European Parliament stated that the Chairman was "unable to reach the complainant", without specifying the reason.
 Regulation (EEC, Euratom, ECSC) No 259/68 of the Council of 29 February 1968 laying down the Staff Regulations of Officials of the European Communities and the Conditions of Employment of Other Servants of the European Communities, OJ 1968 L 56, p. 1, as subsequently amended.
 These IRHS cancel and replace the rules adopted in 2004 concerning the Advisory Committee on Psychological Harassment.
 Case T-59/92 Caronna v Commission  ECR II-1129, paragraph 58.
 Article 6 IRHC.
 Article 10 IRHC. The same Article provides that the Committee should also hear the person against whom the allegations of harassment are brought and may, if needed, contact the various levels of hierarchy to advise them of the existence of a problem.
 Article 11 IRHC.
 Article 14 IRHC.
 See, for example, Case T-80/09 P Commission v Q  ECR II-04313, paragraph 84.
 Decision of the European Parliament of 9 March 1994 on the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the Ombudsman's duties (94/262/ECSC, EC, Euratom), OJ 1994 L 113, p. 15.
 As Ms A confirmed to the Ombudsman's services by telephone on 17 June 2013 that one of these meetings took place after Parliament submitted its opinion on the present case.